The Watch List: Bowl Game Previews, Part I

Updated: December 7th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  During the college bowl season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year.  Note: times listed are Eastern.

Saturday, Dec. 16

Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, North Carolina A&T (11-0) vs. Grambling State (11-1), 11 a.m. (ABC)

The Celebration Bowl, you ask?  The Celebration Bowl is a relatively new invention that features the SWAC and MEAC champions.  When researching this bowl, I learned that neither conference participates in the FCS playoffs for financial reasons.  Their teams often did not compete with other FCS mainstays and traveling for playoff games can cost a lot of money.  Instead, the Celebration Bowl lets the best of each conference compete in a centrally located neutral site game to cap off the season.  While it’s not one of the FBS bowl games, I decided to preview the game for two reasons: 1) it’s a national broadcast leading into the start of the FBS bowl season and 2) because I wanted to do some research on Grambling RB Martez Carter.  Carter is short at 5’9″ but he is solidly built at 205lbs; NFLDraftScout.com estimates his speed in the mid 4.40 range.  He has three straight 800+ rushing yard seasons, averages 5.7 yards per carry, has four career kick return touchdowns and is a factor in the passing game.  In 2016, Carter caught 28 balls for 376 yards; in 2017 he upped that to 30 for 402.  He has eight career receiving touchdowns.  Based on my limited study, I would throw out Shane Vereen as a reasonable size, speed and production comp.  Carter appears to be the type of player who will latch on to an NFL team for his special teams skills and could be an injury away from a role.  North Carolina A&T has a mountain of an offensive tackle named Brandon Parker.  He’s 6’8″ and 310lbs.  Based on size alone, I would guess he’s at least a third round NFL prospect.  I won’t pretend to have a good feel for this game but if nothing else it’ll be a good chance to watch two under the radar draft prospects and a great way to get your football Saturday started early.  Prediction: Grambling State

R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Troy (10-2) vs. North Texas (9-4), 1 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Troy: 52nd scoring offense, 34th passing offense, 85th rushing offense; 11th scoring defense, 69th passing defense, 15th rushing defense
  • North Texas: 20th scoring offense, 21st passing offense, 53rd rushing offense; 106th scoring defense, 64th passing defense, 107th rushing defense

I’m cautiously optimistic that the first bowl of the season will be an entertaining one.  Troy is on a six game winning streak with the closest game being by 8 against bowl-bound Arkansas State.  North Texas is coming off a loss to Lane Kiffin’s red hot FAU team but prior to that they had won five straight, including two close wins to bowl-bound Louisiana Tech and Army.  North Texas’ 20th ranked scoring offense was previously led by RB Jeffery Wilson (1,215 yards, 16TDs) but he has missed the team’s last two games due to an ankle injury.  In his stead, undersized freshman Nick Smith will get the lion’s share of the carries.  In the last two without Wilson, Smith went for 178 yards against Rice but just 50 against FAU.  Since Troy has a strong rush defense, I’m hoping we get to see Wilson at full strength in the bowl.  North Texas QB Mason Fine is just 5’11” and 180lbs but has been prolific with 3,749 yards (9th in the FBS) and 28 TDs.  In the preseason, I called Troy RB Jordan Chunn “the player from the Sun Belt most likely to end up on your fantasy team next Spring.”  He underwhelmed this season with just 978 total yards and 10 TDs but he did miss two games due to a leg laceration.  A good showing from Chunn would help his draft stock but he should be off your board as a fantasy owner for now.  Put this one one while you eat lunch, flip over to Oregon vs Boise State when it starts and then come back at 4:00 to see if the ending is worth your time.  Prediction: Troy

AutoNation Cure Bowl, Western Kentucky (6-6) vs. Georgia State (6-5), 2:30 p.m. (CBSSN)

  • Western Kentucky: 83rd scoring offense, 9th passing offense, 130th rushing offense; 69th scoring defense, 36th passing defense, 77th rushing defense
  • Georgia State:  119th scoring offense, 31st passing offense, 117th rushing offense; 55th scoring defense, 92nd passing defense, 47th rushing defense

The Hilltoppers struggled through the back half of the season, losing four of their last five.  At 5-2, they may have thought they were on their way to repeating their recent history of double digit wins but alas they came crashing back to earth.  Georgia State similarly ended on a sour note with two bad losses to Appalachian State (by 21) and Idaho (who finished at 4-8 and is moving down to the FCS next year).  Chances are this is going to be a game to miss but the lone bright spot will be Western Kentucky QB Mike White.  White is a fringe QB prospect that I introduced to my readers in the offseason.  White is a former USF transfer who has prototypical size at 6’4″ and 225lbs.  He excelled last season with Taywan Taylor (who was drafted by the Titans) with a 37:7 TD:INT ratio.  In 2017, White regressed in ratio (24:7), completion percentage and yards per attempt.  His stats are still good enough to warrant a late look in the NFL Draft.  Amazingly, Georgia State managed to be bowl eligible despite finishing 119th in scoring offense.  Don’t expect this one to be pretty.  Prediction: Western Kentucky

Las Vegas Bowl, Boise State (10-3) vs. Oregon (7-5), 3:30 p.m. (ABC)

  • Boise State: 36th scoring offense, 44th passing offense, 91st rushing offense; 35th scoring defense, 44th passing defense, 20th rushing defense
  • Oregon:  18th scoring offense, 97th passing offense, 8th rushing offense; 76th scoring defense, 75th passing defense, 26th rushing defense

The Las Vegas Bowl is the crown jewel of the early bowl games.  Sure, Oregon had a disappointing year at 7-5 (and a losing 4-5 record in conference) and just lost head coach Willie Taggart to Florida State but they will still be fun to watch.  Oregon’s offense was less potent than in recent memory but still averaged 36.7 points per game.  Most of those points were scored by RB Royce Freeman who had 16 rushing TDs.  Freeman has 5,621 career rushing yards and 60 rushing TDs.  He’s good.  I wrote about Freeman in the preseason and in Week 3 – I still love him today.  He’s a battering ram at 230+ pounds.  My biggest complaint about Freeman this year would be that he did not progress as a pass catcher; he had just 14 receptions compared to 23 and 26 the previous two years.  In order to consider him a true three down back I would have loved to see him hit the 30 reception plateau.  He has been on fire as of late, finishing the season with six straight games with 122 or more yards.  Freeman will face a stiffer test though in Boise’s rush defense.  They held six opponents to less than 100 yards, including the nation’s 12th ranked rushing offense in San Diego State and Rashaad Penny.  Sophomore QB Justin Herbert will get a lot of attention over the next year or two from NFL scouts.  He is very tall at 6’6″ and efficient with the ball (64.7% completion percentage and just 7 INTs in his two season career).  WR Cedrick Wilson is my favorite player on Boise State.  He is a former JUCO transfer with 129 receptions, 2,419 yards and 17 TDs in his two years at Boise.  He’s 6’3″ and a good blocker which will help get him drafted.  Per Pro Football Focus, Wilson has a very high contested catch completion percentage.  I have Wilson as my WR15 for 2018 rookie drafts.  This game is a must-watch so be sure not to miss it.  I’m torn but will pick against Oregon after the news that Taggart is leaving.  Prediction: Boise State

Gildan New Mexico Bowl, Marshall (7-5) vs. Colorado State (7-5), 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Marshall: 81st scoring offense, 58th passing offense, 104th rushing offense; 17th scoring defense, 47th passing defense, 19th rushing defense
  • Colorado State: 29th scoring offense, 23rd passing offense, 29th rushing offense; 73rd scoring defense, 96th passing defense, 86th rushing defense

The Thundering Herd and the Rams combined for just two wins in November (one each) so neither is hot at the moment.  I’m still looking forward to this one though because it will be a chance to see Colorado State WR Michael Gallup against a decent defense.  Gallup improved on a successful 2016 season by finishing 2017 with a 94-1,350-7 line.  Those stats helped him finish first in the conference in receptions and receiving yards (he was 3rd and 4th respectively in the FBS overall).  Gallup does not have elite measureables (6’1″, 200lbs, 4.50 speed) but has elite production so he’ll be considered at the NFL level and in most fantasy leagues.  I watched some of Gallup early in the season against Oregon State and Alabama; both were pretty good games from him but I want to see more from Gallup and would like to re-watch the Alabama tape.  Gallup resides in a no-man’s land of draft prospects size-wise.  Of the twenty-six similar size/speed combine participants from 2010-2o17, the best comps would be Josh Doctson, Allen Hurns and Robert Woods.  If you drafted Gallup in the third round of your rookie draft you’d be happy with that return but chances are he’s going in the second round based on his production.  There’s another draft prospect in this game to keep an eye on: Marshall TE Ryan Yurachek.  Yurachek is undersized for a TE; he’s about the same weight and an inch shorter than last year’s vogue undersized TE Evan Engram.  And no, please do not take that as a comp to Evan Engram because Yurachek is far from the athlete Engram is.  In my early 2018 positional rankings, I included Yurachek because I honestly didn’t have another guy I wanted to include; he was my TE8.  He did have 47 receptions and 9 TDs which ranks him 6th and 3rd in the FBS at the position.  I would not be surprised to see a position change for Yurachek or to see him lineup off the line of scrimmage as is becoming more common for “move” tight ends.  Having an offensive draft prospect on both sides of the ball makes the New Mexico Bowl a “must-DVR” and a maybe-watch.  Prediction: Colorado State

Raycom Media Camelia Bowl, Arkansas State (7-4) vs. Middle Tennessee State (6-6), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Arkansas State: 15th scoring offense, 6th passing offense, 79th rushing offense; 51st scoring defense, 91st passing defense, 35th rushing defense
  • Middle Tennessee State: 92nd scoring offense, 45th passing offense, 90th rushing offense; 45th scoring defense, 46th passing defense, 34th rushing defense

If it weren’t for the Cure Bowl, this would be the dud matchup of the day.  I am finding myself nonplussed, especially considering MTSU WR Richie James has an injured collarbone and is out for the year.  If nothing else, this matchup will be Exhibit A as to why the bowl season needs to contract rather than expand.  Arkansas State does have a late round draft prospect in TE Blake Mack and a very good quarterback in junior Justice Hansen.  Like Yurachek, Mack is an undersized TE who likely figures to be a possession WR or maybe an H-back in the pros.  Mack is 6’3″ and 231lbs with speed in the 4.70 range.  Mack’s line in 2017 finished at 46-609-7, landing him in the Top 10 of most stats among TEs.  I researched Mack in the preseason for my Sun Belt preview and at that time I said, “He was very versatile, lining up in the slot, on the outside and in the backfield.  He was not on the line often and I did not see a single highlight of him blocking (possibly more a feature of what constitutes a highlight, but my gut tells me he doesn’t block much).  He has the speed to beat safeties and linebackers in coverage, which he did on a number of plays.”  Hansen is a former Oklahoma and JUCO transfer so he’s had a circuitous route to success in the Sun Belt.  He is a dual-threat QB who has thrown for 3,635 yards and 34 TDs this season and added six more scores on the ground.  Hansen completes a high percentage of his passes (63.7) but has thrown too many INTs (15).  He has good size so who knows maybe a good game puts him on the late round radar for 2019.  Despite the injury, Richie James will still get drafted if he comes out.  He started his career with 212 receptions, nearly 3,000 yards and 20 TDs combined as a freshman and sophomore.  In eight career games against Power 5 opponents (against Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Syracuse, Minnesota and three times against Vanderbilt), James totaled 65 receptions, 849 yards and 5 TDs.  That’s a better season, in eight games, than somebody like Clemson WR Deon Cain had this year and he’s in the mix as a Top 10 rookie WR for 2018 fantasy drafts.  Unfortunately we won’t see James in this one but you should definitely be paying attention to whether he declares or not for the NFL.  I’m leaning towards the Red Wolves in this one due to the strength of their passing game and their quarterback.  Prediction: Arkansas State

Tuesday, Dec. 19

Boca Raton Bowl, Florida Atlantic (10-3) vs. Akron (7-6), 7 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Florida Atlantic: 9th scoring offense, 81st passing offense, 6th rushing offense; 44th scoring defense, 93rd passing defense, 67th rushing defense
  • Akron: 103rd scoring offense, 74th passing offense, 118th rushing offense; 60th scoring defense, 82nd passing defense, 98th rushing defense

I’m not a gambling man, given my horrible record of weekly picks this season that is a good thing, but if I were I would bet big on this one.  This game is the lock of all locks this bowl season, in favor of the Owls and Lane Kiffin playing at home in Boca Raton.  One caveat: that’s if Kiffin is still on campus.  With the coaching carousel still spinning there is no guarantee Kiffin is still in Boca come December 19th.  I predict he’ll stay unless Florida State comes calling.  In the offseason, I called it a rebuilding year for Kiffin and he has done just that after a surprising 10-3 season.  Both Phil Steele and Lindy’s had FAU projected as the 5th place team in C-USA’s East division.  Not only did they win the division, and the conference, but they went undefeated (8-0) and finished three games ahead of second place FIU.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention FAU’s sophomore RB Devin Singletary.  Singletary’s rushing numbers this season are literally unbelievable: 275 carries, 1,794 yards and 29 TDs.  He ranks Top 5 in just about every relevant running back stat in the FBS.  The one that impressed me most is the number of carries; 275 carries is good for 5th overall and is twice as much as he handled last season.  He’s short at 5’9″ but stout enough at 200lbs (think Ameer Abdullah if he adds a few pounds).  Singletary was not on my draft prospect radar previously but luckily I have another season to delve deeper since he’s just a sophomore.  One of the reasons I am so sure that FAU will beat Akron is that Akron’s 7-6 record isn’t even as good as it looks.  They have two one-point wins, one three-point win and a win against a 2-9 FCS team.  I’ll say one good thing about Akron though, they have a hell of a tackling machine, and a great name, in Ulysees Gilbert III (yes, that is Ulysees not Ulysses).  Gilbert is a junior who has two back-to-back 120+ tackle and 4 sack seasons.  WalterFootball.com has him as the 13th ranked OLB for 2019 while NFLDraftScout.com has him as 10th in the class.  He might not factor in for you IDP players in 2018 but go ahead and impress your friends by dropping some Zips knowledge now.  Bet it all on Boca.  Prediction: Florida Atlantic

Wednesday, Dec. 20

Frisco Bowl, SMU (7-5) vs. Louisiana Tech (6-6), Frisco, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • SMU: 8th scoring offense, 16th passing offense, 45th rushing offense; 113th scoring defense, 121st passing defense, 113th rushing defense
  • Louisiana Tech: 63rd scoring offense, 64th passing offense, 55th rushing offense; 66th scoring defense, 59th passing defense, 81st rushing defense

By the time you read this preview, there is a very good chance that Chad Morris is no longer SMU’s head coach and is instead at either Arkansas or Tennessee.  Don’t these ADs know how difficult it is to write a good bowl preview when you don’t know who the head coach will be?  Woe is me, we’ll press on.  The biggest draft prospect of this early slate of games is undoubtedly SMU’s WR Courtland Sutton.  I am an active member in Reddit’s dynasty fantasy football subreddit called r/DynastyFF.  The sub runs bi-weekly rookie mock drafts and I have been compiling the results for you, dear reader.  As of the mock started on 11/29, Sutton was the 1.03 pick and was in a clear tier with Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb and James Washington just behind Saquon Barkley.  In that forum, Sutton is the WR1, has been picked as high as 1.02 and has never gone later than 1.05.  I have written extensively about Sutton this season so I won’t go into detail here but here’s a short summary: Sutton has elite size, good speed and fantastic body control but has feasted mostly on subpar defenses and saw a reduced role in 2017.  SMU has an awful defense and is coming off a poor end to the season (a close win against Tulane kept them from losing their last four games); Louisiana Tech on the other hand ended with two wins (albeit one against 0-12 UTEP).  Aside from Sutton, there is somebody else worth rooting for in this game: Lousiana Tech RB Boston Scott.  Scott is a 5’6″, former walk-on, fifth year senior who suffers from a rare muscular disorder.  He earned a scholarship last season and has gained over 1,000 total yards and 9 TDs this season as Tech’s primary ball carrier.  I expect this one to be high scoring and surprisingly fun to watch.  SMU’s defense and the flux in the program will be factors.  Prediction: Louisiana Tech

Thursday, Dec. 21

Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, Temple (6-6) vs. Florida International (8-4), 8 p.m. (ESPN)

  • Temple: 118th scoring offense, 107th passing offense, 116th rushing offense; 83rd scoring defense, 6th passing defense, 126th rushing defense
  • Florida International: 74th scoring offense, 56th passing offense, 65th rushing offense; 79th scoring defense, 95th passing defense, 79th rushing defense

Butch Davis, much like Lane Kiffin, sought the sunny shores of Florida to rehab his career.  Davis also succeeded, although to a lesser degree than Kiffin.  FIU finished 8-4 which is just the second time the team has won eight or more since they joined the FBS in 2004.  It’s also just the team’s third bowl, although it’s not the most ridiculously named bowl the Golden Panthers will have played in.  That ignominious award goes to the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl (named for a restaurant I predict I will never patronize).   Temple disappointed this year at 6-6 after back-to-back ten win seasons under former coach Matt Rhule.  Temple’s QB Logan Marchi battled injuries, inefficiency and turnovers which may account for the downfall.  As far as I can tell, neither Temple nor Florida International have any worthwhile offensive NFL draft prospects.  Temple’s strong pass defense is led by CB/S Sean Chandler and CB Mike Jones.  Jones is a graduate transfer from North Carolina Central University where he totaled 114 tackles and 11 INTs; this year at Temple he had 38 tackles, an INT and 7 passes defended.  Chandler had 74 tackles, 2 INTs and 3 passes defended this season.  Chandler is the more likely of the two to get drafted: in the preseason, Phil Steele had him as the sixth ranked FS.  FIU’s mediocre defense is led by LBs Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams, both of whom have 180+ tackles each over the last two seasons combined.  Aside from the Cure Bowl, this one has the worst combination of offenses and might prove unwatchable.  Prediction: Temple


Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

The Watch List: Week 13

Updated: November 22nd 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the storylines, players and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my weekly picks, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Note: the rankings referenced below refer to the Week 13 AP poll.  CFP rankings were not yet available at the time of writing.

Storylines to Watch

  • Heisman Update:  Despite some new “character concerns” about Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, he’s still my Heisman favorite.  Mayfield threw for 257 yards and 3 TDs against Kansas – solid but not standout.  What did standout was Mayfield grabbing his crotch and cursing at Kansas players.  The school has already announced that he will not start against West Virginia but whether that means he misses one play, one drive or one quarter we don’t know.  Chances are that however long the discipline lasts it won’t impact his Heisman hopes.  I’ve slightly wavered recently about who the #2 on the ballot should be between Saquon Barkley or Bryce Love.  This week clinched it for me.  Love went for 101 yards and a score against Cal but left early in the 4th quarter, still hampered by an ankle injury which has impacted him in multiple games.  Meanwhile, Barkley racked up 224 total yards and scored three rushing touchdowns.  I don’t really see a clear-cut defensive player who might land on the ballot and earn a trip to New York for the ceremony.  Preseason chalk favorites like Florida State S Derwin James or Alabama CB Minkah Fitzpatrick might get the nod but I would bet against them and take the field.  Realistically, a dark horse defensive hopeful needs to come from a Power 5 school and have some big games in conference.  I would look at North Carolina State DE Bradley Chubb as the top option.  Chubb has 66 tackles, 22 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.  Most of his sacks (8.5) came in conference games (I’m including the game against Notre Dame since they are effectively ACC football members); he had three 2+ sack games against Florida State, Syracuse and Boston College.  A darker-horse option might be Iowa CB Joshua Jackson.  Jackson has 43 tackles, 7 INTs and 17 passes defended.  The biggest reason Jackson could get a visit to NYC?  His performance in two nationally televised games versus Top 10 teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin).  In those two games, Jackson totaled 5 INTs and returned two for TDs against Wisconsin.  As much as I’d love for my sleeper defensive Heisman pick, Ball State DE Anthony Winbush, to get a vote it’s much more likely to go to a player from a Power 5 team who showed out when voters were watching.
  • Playoff Picture:  As of this writing on Monday evening, I do not expect the CFP committee to make any changes to the Top 4.  I think Alabama, Clemson, Miami and Oklahoma will still be there but I would not be surprised if Clemson and Miami flip spots.  Proponents of an 8- or 16-team playoff format should really pay attention to the schedule this week and next.  9 of the Top 10 in the current AP poll will play another Top 10 team over the next two weeks.  That makes all of those games playoff play-in games essentially.  If Auburn loses to Alabama – they’re out.  If Wisconsin loses to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship – they’re out.  And so on.  I’m not even sure that undefeated Alabama or Miami can get by with a loss and still stay in the Top 4.  The biggest knock on both teams this season has been their strength of schedule and a loss, albeit against another Top 10 team, would bump them out.  My current prediction is: Alabama (over Auburn and Georgia), Clemson (over Miami), Wisconsin (over Ohio State) and Oklahoma (over TCU).  I think Wisconsin lands ahead of Oklahoma because Wisconsin’s win over Ohio State should rate better than Oklahoma’s against TCU.
  • Coaching Carousel:  There’s a phrase used in the NFL to describe the day after the season ends when most coaches are fired: Black Monday.  The FBS is coming up on it’s own “Black Sunday” in less than a week so I thought it was a good time to check in on the coaching carousel.  Rather than spotlighting players this week, we are going to briefly examine a number of coaches who are under the microscope.  You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to follow the rumors but two useful pages I came across are here and here.  Why should you care?  Aside from the ridiculousness of the will-he-won’t-he, the impending coaching changes will greatly impact the draft stock of certain players.  Some key draft prospects could decide to declare early or stay for an extra season depending on what happens with their head coach; some players, typically underclassmen, could decide to transfer and sit out a season; coaching changes could also be a factor with graduate transfers where the player doesn’t have to sit out and can pick their landing spot like an NFL free agent.

Coaches to Watch

  • Chip Kelly, ESPN “Analyst”:  Kelly is probably the sexiest name that’s been bandied about because of his immense success at Oregon (his failures in the NFL notwithstanding).  I have heard Kelly connected to both the Florida job and the UCLA job.  I’d guess that Kelly would lean towards UCLA given his PAC-12 experience but that’s just a gut call.  Kelly belongs in the college game so I’ll be happy to see him back.  Wouldn’t it be fun if he signs with UCLA and convinces Josh Rosen to come back for another season?  Hmm.  Is a return to Oregon completely out of the question?  Double hmm.
  • Jon Gruden, ESPN Analyst:  Gruden’s name has come up with Florida and also Tennessee.  One of the reasons I heard that he would consider Tennessee is that his wife was a cheerleader there.  The real connection is that Gruden was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1986.  Yeah, I’m still not buying it.  I will continue to believe that Gruden stays in the booth until proven otherwise.  He has passed up better jobs than either Florida or Tennessee in both college and the NFL.  Also, don’t forget that he’s never been a head coach at the college level so why start now?
  • Scott Frost, UCF Coach:  Frost is a Nebraska alum so the connect-the-dots analysis has him going there whenever the Huskers fire coach Mike Riley.  Nebraska does play in the weaker Big Ten West but I don’t see them unseating Wisconsin anytime soon even with Frost.  In my opinion, his best shot at playing in New Year’s Six bowls is by staying at UCF for another season or two.  By then he might get a shot at a true A+ job.  Frost to Oregon instead of Nebraska isn’t that far off either, he worked there under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich from 2009-2015.
  • Willie Taggart, Oregon Coach:  Speaking of Oregon, the SB Nation article I linked to above has multiple mentions of Willie Taggart being considered for other positions.  Why?  Taggart is just 6-5 so far in his first season with Oregon.  I like his potential as he salvaged two programs in Western Kentucky and USF but it’s a bit premature to jump to another premier job for Taggart.  If he does move on (or maybe is fired, who knows) I’ll bet rumors about Oregon will swirl faster than Florida and Tennessee.  It’s fun to imagine Chip Kelly returning to Eugene or an offensive mind like Scott Frost bringing some excitement back to the Ducks.  If Oregon was guaranteed to get either Kelly or Frost, I think they would part ways with the underwhelming Taggart in a blink.
  • Jimbo Fisher, Florida State Coach:  The Seminoles are having a bad season for sure but is it bad enough for Jimbo to jump ship?  I don’t think so.  He’ll have Deondre Francois back next year and has a great young running back in Cam Akers.  He’ll lose some NFL talent like WR Auden Tate and S Derwin James but the cupboard is perpetually full in Tallahassee.  If Jimbo leaves for Texas A&M as was speculated last week, I think it would be a big mistake.  I also heard that Auburn could be a possibility for Jimbo if that job opened up.  I don’t see that one either.  Moving into a division with Nick Saban is a good way to get yourself fired in three years.

Games to Watch

  • #22 USF at #15 UCF, Friday 3:30pm on ABC:  The Friday after Thanksgiving usually gives us a few good college football games but this year is a pretty poor slate despite featuring #3 Miami and #12 TCU.  The game with the biggest possibility to create bowl chaos is UCF’s matchup against USF.  If UCF wins, they likely guarantee themselves a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl as I don’t think Memphis would overtake them even with the head-to-head championship win (don’t forget UCF already beat them 40-13 this season so the series would be tied at 1-1).  If USF wins, they put themselves back in the AAC conversation.
  • #9 Ohio State at #24 Michigan, Saturday 12:00pm on FOX:  Simply, “The Game.”  Michigan is adding injury to insult now that third string QB Brandon Peters is hurt along with recently banged up RBs Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac.  John O’Korn will likely be under center and I have zero confidence in him as a Michigan fan.  Ohio State’s QB JT Barrett has struggled in November and needs to finish his career with three strong games to get NFL draft consideration.  I was encouraged to see that RB Mike Weber was back in the fold the last two weeks (162-2 and 108-2).  I was high on him to start the season but have tempered expectations after freshman JK Dobbins took over the lead role.  It’s good to see Weber dominate again, even if in a blowout.  It goes without saying but this one means a lot this season as Ohio State must have it to stay in consideration for the playoff.
  • #1 Alabama at #6 Auburn, Saturday 3:30pm on CBS:  Stop me if you’ve heard this before… the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn will be the best matchup of the weekend.  I did not realize just how high powered the Auburn offense was until I started to research.  They have scored 40+ points in nine of twelve games and in four straight.  They are led by RB Kerryon Johnson (1,172 yards, 16 TDs) but keep an eye on sophomore Kam Martin.  Martin had 83 yards and a score last week against UL-Monroe and is getting more touches with Kamryn Pettway injured.  QB Jarrett Stidham continues to be efficient (68.7% completion percentage) and careful with the ball (just 4 INTs).  Alabama’s rush-heavy offense is still paced by the familiar names of Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris and QB Jalen Hurts but there is one other player who will factor in: sophomore Josh Jacobs.  Jacobs has 50+ total yards in five of the last six games and is a factor in the passing game.  In those five games, Jacobs has two receptions in each game and is averaging 15.9 yards per catch with two touchdowns.  If you haven’t watched much of the Alabama’s defense this season, now is your chance against a good Auburn offense.  CB/S Minkah Fitzpatrick says he’s 100% healthy now and will be a Top 5 draft pick come April.  S Ronnie Harrison is also looking at a first round draft grade.  If you play in an IDP league, check these two out now so you can be ahead of your opponents.
  • #14 Washington State at #18 Washington, Saturday 8:00pm on FOX:  If the Cougars can win The Apple Cup they will earn the PAC-12 North’s championship berth against USC.  Washington is out of contention; if Washington wins, it means that Stanford gets the spot (regardless of the outcome of their game against Notre Dame).  I don’t have a dog in the fight so I’m just hoping for a good game and some good performances from the NFL prospects on the field (i.e. Washington State QB Luke Falk and Washington WR Dante Pettis).  The Stanford vs Notre Dame game may actually be a better game to watch but since Stanford cannot control their own destiny, this is the one to tune into at 8:00pm.

Note: When watching film for a player in the offseason, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, foxsports.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, Strong as Steele with Phil Steele, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

The Watch List: Pac 12 Preview

Updated: August 10th 2017

Welcome to The Watch List, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players, storylines and matchups from the college game that deserve your attention.  Check back throughout the Summer for previews on each conference and my preseason Heisman predictions.  During the regular season, The Watch List will continue to update you on who is fantasy relevant and worth your draft capital next year. 

Players to Watch

  • Sam Darnold, QB, USC:  Everywhere you look, Darnold is the top QB prospect for 2018 if not the first overall player.  I’d say the hype is verging on Andrew Luck territory, however Luck had much more experience (38 games vs at most 25 for Darnold).  I’m not quite ready to say that Darnold is the second coming, but he’s my clear QB1 for 2018 right now.  Darnold has good size at 6’4″ and 225lb but questionable speed.  Heading into college he ran a 4.95 per ESPN; DraftScout.com has him pegged in the 4.74 range.  At those combine measureables, Darnold compares to Christian Hackenberg if he runs faster or Tom Savage if slower.  Hopefully I’m not damning with faint praise here – Hackenberg was hyped after a great freshman season but his value came crashing down after a bad sophomore year.  In 2016, Darnold threw for 3,086 yards, 31 TDs and 9 INTs – good totals for somebody who wasn’t the starter until week four.  He had a very high completion percentage of 67.2%, good enough for ninth in the nation.  I checked his situational stats on CFBStats.com and was impressed with how clutch he was in the red zone (63% completion percentage, 23 TDs and just one INT) and in the fourth quarter (when his completion percentage and passer rating spiked compared to earlier quarters).  The first game tape of Darnold I watched was against Washington (15th ranked pass defense).  His footwork was immediately apparent – his feet don’t stop moving and he is always primed to either step into a throw or leave the pocket.  He is comfortable under pressure and throws accurately while on the run.  My favorite play of his during the Washington game came on a 2nd & 11 in the red zone, early in the 2nd quarter with the score tied.  He felt the pressure from his left, rolled right, shuffled his feet until he saw a lane to hit a streaking receiver in the back of the end zone.  He managed to thread the defenders and lead his receiver well.  His evasion of the rush was also on display against Utah when literally the first play of the game saw him under duress.  He broke two tackles, rolled right while outrunning a defensive lineman and threw the ball away.  In the drive log it showed up as an incomplete pass but in reality it was so much more: it showcased his athleticism (I still won’t call him fast) and his field awareness.  I remember seeing a similar type of play when watching film of Deshone Kizer and instead of throwing the ball away and playing another down, he threw it up to be intercepted.  Speaking of his athleticism, he had a hard fought ten yard touchdown run in both games – unfortunately the one against Washington was called back on a penalty.  Regardless, he won’t be doing much running in the NFL but I think he could gain a reputation as “mobile” in the pocket like Ben Roethlisberger.  My biggest concern after watching Darnold’s tape is his arm motion.  It struck me that it looks too long.  On many throws he dips his hand below his waist as he loads for the throw.  He does throw from varied arm angles which leads me to believe he can be taught and isn’t locked into his bad habit.  Darnold will be the top pick in the 2018 draft and should garner early interest in your RSO league.  If you are in a standard league, you’re looking at an early second round pick for him; in superflex leagues, I’d say somewhere in the 1.06 range (after Barkley, Guice, Chubb, and Sutton and right around Scarborough and Washington).
  • Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA:  If it weren’t for Darnold, Rosen would be the one to watch in the Pac-12 this season.  For that reason, I’m not convinced that Rosen leaves after his junior season unless he absolutely lights it up.  Rosen lost most of his sophomore season to a shoulder injury but is okay to return this season.  In 2015, as a true freshman, he put up solid numbers: a 60% completion percentage, 3,669 yards, 23 TDs to 11 INTs.  In 2016, his stats were basically on the same track with an uptick in yards per game.  Like Darnold, I took a closer look at his situational stats but was disappointed (I used 2015’s stats to have a larger sample size and because in 2016 he missed three of the team’s four games against ranked opponents).  Rosen’s completion percentage and passer rating take a dip in the 4th quarter, the opposite of what you’d hope.  2015 was actually a tale of two halves for Rosen.  In the first half, he threw 16 TDs, 6 INTs, completed 63.7% of his passes and had a passer rating of 148.  In the second half, just 7 TDs, 5 INTs, 55.7% and 118.  It’s a shame we didn’t get a full complement of games in 2016 to see if these stats would have improved because in the small sample we have they did.  That’s something I will be checking on after the 2017 season.  Rosen measures in at 6’4″ and 210lb and is a true pocket passer, even more so than Darnold.  He’s such a pocket passer that I came across two separate pieces during my research comparing him to Eli Manning (one from NFL.com, one from DraftBreakdown.com).  I was underwhelmed by Rosen’s stats but his film is good – maybe it’s just refreshing to see a college quarterback under center and in the pocket rather than trying to run all over.  I watched him against Stanford in 2016 because that was the toughest passing defense he faced (61st) in his shortened season.  I noted that he has very good play action fakes.  At first I wasn’t sure why the play action plays caught my eye but then I realized it is because we see college quarterbacks under center so infrequently that a true play action fake, when their back is to the defense, is rare.  Rosen has a quick release and unlike Darnold does not need to work on his mechanics.  I paused the film during a few throws to see how his motion compared to Darnold and it was starkly different – Rosen’s hand rarely dips below his numbers which is why he can unload the ball so quickly.  Because Rosen is a statue in the pocket, he does take a number of sacks.  Per Phil Steele’s game logs, UCLA allowed 15 sacks in games that Rosen started (2.5 per game); for comparison USC only allowed six in Darnold’s games (0.6 per game) and never more than one per game.  I predict NFL scouts will fall in love with Rosen the more tape they watch but ultimately I don’t think he’ll overcome the Darnold hype.  His mechanics and college offense might better prepare him for the pros but Darnold is more athletic, has a better pocket presence and is clutch when it counts.  If Rosen comes out, which is likely but he might have less competition in 2019, he will likely be the second QB off the board in both NFL and RSO drafts.
  • Dante Pettis, WR, Washington:  The odds of Pettis becoming a productive NFL receiver are against him due to his size.  Since 2010, the list of WRs who weighed in at less than 190lbs at the combine is long (16 players) and the only one with any notable NFL success is Will Fuller.  Yes, that Will Fuller that just broke is collarbone and is out indefinitely; and yes, that Will Fuller who also missed time last year due to other injuries.  Pettis has contributed all three seasons and his stats have improved year-over-year.  In 2016, he was part of a potent one-two punch with John Ross.  Pettis finished with a 53-822-15 line.  His touchdown to reception ratio was impressive: he caught a touchdown every 3.5 receptions.  Whether he can keep that up in 2017 is questionable as he won’t have the threat of Ross opposite him to distract defenses.  I watched film of Pettis against Oregon and I do have to admit that I was surprised to see him as a willing blocker on a number of plays and he was also not afraid to go across the middle despite his size.  He also showcased his hands on two great touchdown catches.  The first one he high-pointed and caught the ball with good hand placement (he lost the ball when heading to the ground and it likely would not have been a touchdown in the NFL); on the second one he made a diving one handed catch in the back of the end zone.  He’s capable of NFL quality moments but I think his size will hold him back in scouts’ minds.  He’ll probably be in the range of WR6-8 for me this Spring so you should plan on targeting him late in the second round of your RSO draft.
  • Honorable Mentions:
    • Luke Falk, QB, Washington State:  Falk is a third year starter in coach Mike Leach’s air raid passing offense.  He has a very high 68.8% career completion percentage and tossed 38 TDs each of the past two seasons.  Falk feels like somebody who will be under-drafted because of his college offense but will show up in camp and beat out some veteran for a backup job due to his experience, composure and accuracy.  If he manages to land behind a questionable starter, he might be worth a speculative add.
    • Ronald Jones, RB, USC:  Ronald Jones is a bit of an enigma to me.  He’s long and lean: 6’1″ and 195lb.  That may not seem like an odd combination but I went back through combine measurements dating back to 2000.  There was just one RB who was over 6ft but under 200lb.  In order to make himself more desirable to NFL scouts, I think Jones will need to add at least 10lb.  In two seasons, Jones has 2,069 rushing yards and 20 TDs.  Unfortunately, he’s not a factor in the passing game.  One last caveat: Jones has just one career game where he received more than 20 carries.
    • Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon:  Freeman, on the other hand, is a 230lb battering ram who gets fed.  Freeman has fourteen career games with more than 20 carries, for comparison to Jones.  When I look at his stats, game logs and highlights it just screams NFL.  Freeman started as a true freshman in 2014 with 252 carries; he peaked in 2015 with 283 before being slowed to 168 in 2016.  He has 44 career rushing TDs.  Also unlike Jones, Freeman is a decent receiver, averaging 22 receptions a year.  Freeman isn’t the smoothest runner, he looks a bit laborious, but he comps well to Eddie Lacy in both size and speed (DraftScout.com estimates a 4.54 for Freeman).  I’ll be keeping an eye on Freeman this season and think he will slot in as my 5th ranked RB for the 2018 draft.
    • Vita Vea, DT, Washington:  You can’t teach size – and Vea has plenty of it.  He lists at 6’5″ and anywhere from 332-344lb depending on the source.  He will likely play at NT in a 3-4 scheme in the NFL.  I watched highlights of him against Rutgers and he honestly looked smaller than his listed size so his value could come down to the combine.  He had 39 tackles in 2016 with 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks.
    • Cameron Smith, LB, USC:  Smith was a sensation as a true freshman in 2015 and was named a Freshman All-American and was Second Team Pac-12.  He increased his tackle output slightly (78-83) and should hit the century mark this year if he wants to cement his draft pedigree.  Smith is a stay at home MLB who has just two career sacks so he might not show up on the highlight reel but he will show up in the boxscore.
    • Iman Marshall, CB, USC:  Marshall came out of high school as Phil Steele’s #1 cornerback recruit; he’ll be leaving college as his #2 pro prospect at the position.  Marshall has put up good numbers through two years as a starter: 119 tackles, 6 INTs, 17 passes defended.  Marshall obviously doesn’t mind getting involved in the run defense to rack up so many tackles (for comparison, Steele’s top corner prospect Tavarus McFadden had just 19 tackles last year to Marshall’s 52).

Storylines to Watch

  • The Darnold & Rosen Show:  No, it’s not a new drive-time sports talk radio show, it’s going to be the weekly back-and-forth between these two quarterbacks.  Both have NFL aspirations and both will see themselves with 1st round draft grades if they can stay healthy and at least reasonably productive.  If both are still healthy come their November 18th face-off it will be epic.
  • The Ascension of Willie Taggart:  At just 40 years old, and with a career 40-45 record, Taggart finds himself in a great job in Eugene with Oregon.  Taggart took over struggling programs at Western Kentucky and South Florida and turned them around with back-to-back winning seasons before moving on.  His records aren’t all that encouraging (0-3 vs Top 10, 2-11 vs Top 25, 3-15 vs Power 5) so this is a move based mostly on potential.  If you’re a fan of looking at “coaching trees” you will be happy to see that Taggart is well connected to the Harbaughs: he coached under Jack at Western Kentucky and under Jim at Stanford.  Ducks fans will hope Taggart has a similar steadying influence on their program but that he sticks around for the long term.
  • Return to Mediocrity for Colorado:  Colorado was a surprise success last year.  They finished the 2016 regular season at 10-3, won the Pac-12 South and landed in the Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State.  Unfortunately for the Buffs, 2017 will be less like the 2016 regular season and more like the Alamo Bowl, a 38-8 loss.  Colorado relied on a strong defense that finished Top 20 in both points and yards.  8 starters depart so there will be a let down.  On offense, QB Sefo Liafu is gone and the top spot will belong to Steven Montez.  Montez might sound familiar because he did get into a number of games last season when Liafu was hurt.  He did well against Oregon and Oregon State but struggled against the tougher defenses of Michigan and USC.  It will take a miracle for Colorado to make it back to the Pac-12 Championship.

Games to Watch

  • September 1, Washington at Rutgers:  This one is a bit of a homer pick, me being a Rutgers fan and all, but I do think it is a big game for Washington.  It’s their only non-conference Power 5 game and is on the road.  If the Huskies start their season with a convincing win as they did last year (48-13), heading into weaker foes in Montana and Fresno State, it should set them up well for Pac-12 play.  Washington’s schedule is back-loaded and they will face their five toughest opponents in a row to end the season.  Starting out strong is imperative.  It’ll be a national spotlight game on a Friday night so be sure to make your weekend plans accordingly.
  • October 14, Oregon at Stanford:  Stanford will be the toughest test yet in a young season for new coach Willie Taggart and the Ducks.  Both of these teams will be hoping to challenge Washington for the Pac-12 North title and winning this game will set them up well.  Making this game even more interesting is the connection between the two head coaches.  Taggart previously coached at Stanford and was the running backs coach when Stanford head coach David Shaw was the offensive coordinator.  The two should know each other well enough to make this a close one.
  • November 18, UCLA at USC:  I have touched on these two teams a number of times in this preview so it should come as no surprise that their season-ending matchup would find it’s way onto this list.  It’ll be our last chance to see one of the two star quarterbacks for 4-5 weeks until the bowl; the winner will get a chance to stay in the limelight playing in the Pac-12 Championship.  USC has won the last two games by a combined 41 points.  I expect the 2017 contest to be closer.

Note: When watching film for a player, I typically pick two games at random to watch.  If game film is not available I will search for highlight reels, but keep in mind these are the best plays that player had all season so they really need to jump off the screen.  I do not necessarily want to watch games where they did very well or very poorly as that may not be a great illustration of their true ability.  If possible, when comparing players at the same position I also like to watch film against common opponents.  Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  When researching college players I use a number of resources, I would recommend bookmarking the below sites…

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, cfbstats.com
  • Film: draftbreakdown.com, youtube.com (but be wary of highlight only reels)
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, nfldraftscout.com, walterfootball.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, ESPN’s First Draft podcast, drafttek.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  Robert works as a recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.